The beginning of the 2017 New York Film Festival has finally arrived and this year the curators have managed to surprise and delight audiences with the international premiere of a movie called Bad Genius. The movie has no gore and very little violence, yet it somehow perfectly represents the type of films that thrive at this fest while helping people discover new voices in cinema from around the world.
Directed by Nattawut Poonpiriya, Bad Genius is a high school heist thriller that follows the intelligent and mild mannered Lynn (Chutimon Cheungcharoensukying), a girl who has just transferred into a very prestigious school and who is well on her way to earning an international scholarship while finishing at the top of her class. When she is befriended by Grace (Eisaya Hosuwan), a popular but rather dumb girl, the two hit it off but during a test one day, Lynn feels bad for grace and passes her the answers on a test so that she can remain in the school play. Grace soon informs her wealthy boyfriend, Pat (Teeradon Supapunpinyo), and soon they manage to convince Lynn to start a cheating operation that will help her earn a good chunk of money while providing passing grades to others.
When the other scholarship student at the school, Bank (Chanon Santinatornkul), rats Lynn and her cohorts out, she loses her scholarship and reverts back to being a normal student. Shortly after, she is approached again by the wealthy students and offered a ton of money to help them cheat on the STIC exam (an SAT-type test to enter into US schools) in an attempt to earn a ton of money and go abroad for school. From there, the film goes into full Ocean’s 11/Inside Man mode in an attempt to cheat on one of the most secure tests in the world.
Bad Genius was a surprisingly entertaining and pretty intense movie for a film about cheating. I never thought high school cheating could be so thrilling but watching people attempt to get away with an incredibly ambitious and risky plan was enthralling. In general, I think most people love heist movies, but watching people try and beat the system is what really grabs me. Understanding the details involved in beating the STIC test, in this case, were very cool to see unfold on screen and makes me wish I was as creative if I was still a young enterprising rebel. There were certainly some ridiculous moments, like a supervisor chasing a student out of the school and into the subway like a cop and a robber, but otherwise everything about the film was terrific.
Coming in at just over two hours, there’s reason to pause and wonder if the film could work for such a long duration. Rest assured that it does and the main reason is because the film is divided into three chapters focusing on 10th, 11th, and 12th grade. It gives our characters a larger arc to work with and see how their goals and priorities change. Director Poonpiriya does a nice job with the pacing but also manages to develop the characters enough where we actually care about their evolution. What helps this further is the great chemistry that can be seen among the lead actors, making us understand their feelings and decision making process. The chemistry also aids in making the visualization and justification of the cheating easier because we can easily understand both the societal and social pressure that cause the leads to go down the rabbit hole (even if it’s morally wrong).
SPOILER My only complaint about the film is the final few minutes. I’m torn on the redemption aspect of Lynn and the greedy turnaround by Bank. Seeing Bank try to blackmail Lynn felt out of place even after he became more confident and watching Lynn’s breakdown and newfound desire to become a teacher seeming like a copout. I’m fine with her denouncing her friends and realizing that she compromised all of her values, but the choice to stay in Thailand and become a teacher didn’t fit with me (this is just a personal preference). END SPOILER
Overall, Bad Genius might be the first Thai film I’ve ever seen that didn’t involve either lots of action or a lot of gore. Instead, this semi-comedic heist thriller was a film that blended all the elements of a great opening night genre fest film. It had spot on humor, balanced drama, and a lot of suspense that brought its audience unknowingly to the edge of their seats. If you have the opportunity to watch Bad Genius, make sure you do it, I promise you won’t regret watching it.